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The food factor: Making sure they are (really) well fed is pets’ greatest impact on the environment. (Jelena Aloskina/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The food factor: Making sure they are (really) well fed is pets’ greatest impact on the environment. (Jelena Aloskina/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

How feeding and caring for 800 million pets hurts Mother Nature Add to ...

Clearly, Prof. Swanson says, “from an environmental standpoint, pet food could be much more sustainable.”

And, of course, what goes in must come out. Ms. Cameron, a former head of the Calgary Humane Society, has calculated that each of the city’s 125,000 or so dogs produces more than one-third of a kilo of waste a day, or more than 15,000 tonnes a year – 620,000 tonnes nationally.

“It kind of staggers the imagination,” she says. “And it’s going to landfill every single day.”

Not all cities consign it to landfill. Some, such as Toronto and Vancouver, allow pet waste to be recycled or even flushed. How much of the solid-waste stream do pets contribute? A city official says Toronto hasn’t tried to work it out, but a study in San Francisco a few years ago suggests that pets account for about 4 per cent of municipal waste, roughly the same as dirty diapers.

 

Eight little imported outfits for her Shih Tzu

Humanizing pets goes far beyond feeding them ersatz foie gras for dinner. Veterinary care now runs the gamut from prescribing Prozac when they’re blue to using chemotherapy to fight cancer.

But completely arbitrary consumerism is what most irritates the conservation-minded. Ms. Cameron recently spotted a woman buying no fewer than eight little outfits, all imported from China, to dress up her Shih Tzu. She loves dogs, and has taken in two rescued from unfit homes, but the head of Green Calgary had to wonder how much it had cost the planet to dress one furry fashionista.

Even people who worry about their own carbon footprints can be blind to that of their pets. Vancouver filmmaker Helen Slinger attended a public meeting to register, vehemently, her opposition to a proposal that would limit the ability of her 13-year-old mixed breed to run off-leash near the local watershed. The next morning, she confesses in her blog, she awoke to realize that, in doing so, she had left her environmental chops at the door.

The experience inspired Dog Dazed, her film about the social and eco-impact of canines that aired this spring on the CBC.

Cat Ladies, made in 2009, comes at the subject from a feline perspective, and Suzanne Mullett, its associate producer, says the fashion-conscious Shih Tzu owner has nothing on some of her subjects, who have closets filled with kitty couture. “I think it’s really all about them and what they want,” says Ms. Mullett, general director of the Resource Centre for the Arts in St. John’s. “That’s where the consumerism comes in.”

She owns three cats, and admits to having had weak moments herself. She used to buy pet food that resembled chicken chunks swimming in pumpkin juice, and shelled out for cute hats and decorative collars her cats would not wear.

“Animals are not the ones perpetuating this,” says Ms. Mullett, who recently saw a woman in Chicago pushing a dog in a baby stroller. “We’re still in control.”

 

Fido should shed a few

If we are in control, what can we do? Prof. Swanson, the nutrition researcher, suggests putting all fat cats and dogs on a diet. Pet-food makers could reformulate products to contain less protein and be more easily digested (thus producing less waste). It would reduce demand while lessening the supply chain’s environmental impact and producing happier, healthier pets – if, that is, their owners will buy the stuff.

Common sense also could help. When a researcher asked by New Scientist magazine to test the Vales’ dog-to-Land Cruiser comparison drew the same conclusion, David MacKay, chief science adviser to Britain’s Energy and Climate Change Department, advised picking pets like cars – the smaller and fewer, the better.

Cities such as Toronto and Vancouver already limit the number of pets per household. But how well are such restrictions observed? One woman in Cat Ladies has a whopping brood of 200.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a municipal bylaw that outlaws treating a pet like a person – citizens have a right to pamper whom and what they please.

But Suzanne Mullett says that, for her, it boiled down to a simple matter of dollars and sense. “I decided I’m not wasting any more of my money for the cheap thrill of watching my cats walk around in cowboy outfits.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there are 14 million pets in Canada. In fact, there are 14 million dogs and cats and 25.5 million total pets when you include birds, fish, reptiles etc.

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